Posted 07 September 2006 - 05:58 AM
Meal number 1 on our trip to San Sebastian was at Mugaritz, and I spent all day looking forward to it. A friend of mine had a reservation last week, couldn't find the restaurant and lost his booking. Idiot. So I wasn't leaving anything to chance. We therefore arrived uncharacteristically early after a speedy cab journey. But this was no bad thing; we had the chance to wander round the property and have a glass of Cava in the garden patio. The design of the place is very impressive. Country retreat with an oriental twist, and very warm and welcoming. Only one thing went tits up - camera batteries completely dead. So I'm sorry about the lack of photos, though I imagine a lot of our meal has been seen already.
We opted for the mega tasting menu (‘Naturan’), as we were always going to do. We took a trip to the kitchen before the meal began and met a chef called Izu who had been mentioned to us by Brett Graham, as an ex-colleague from the Square. He showed us the various stations in the huge kitchen, and the separate refrigerated prep room. Immaculate and huge, like nothing you could ever find in London. I told Izu we were having the 11 course menu, and he said he'd stick in his favourite dish from the restaurant, as it hadn't made it on to the tasting menu. I will be eternally grateful for this intervention.
So, to the food. By now, you will know that we started with the clay potatoes and garlic mayonnaise. I really enjoyed this. The flavours weren't spectacular, but very pleasant, and with a sense of humour. The mayonnaise was superb.
Second amuse: baby squid in a red pepper consomme. Two baby squid on a small square plate, with the consomme poured over. Sweet consomme, but not sickly, complemented the squid perfectly. A great start.
Third amuse: A Chicken Wing. That's right, a chicken wing. Oh dear oh dear. Herein lies the mystery of Mugaritz. After two excellent amuses, we were served a plain old chicken wing, with a spoonful of chicken broth. Not dissimilar to what I've seen through the windows in Chicken Cottage.
Course 1: CHILLED VEGETABLE SOUP, shrimp, herbs and fern shoots.
This was a cold vegetable shrimp broth, to which was added frozen peas, which came out in a dish steaming from liquid nitrogen. The properties of this dish would be echoed in many others; beautifully presented, using edible flowers and leaves, and crystal clear consommes. I doubt even a tablespoon of cream found itself anywhere near any of our savoury courses. This made for an enjoyable light beginning.
Course 2, Izu's add in: VEGETABLES, OVEN ROASTED AND RAW, SPROUTS AND GREENS, wild and cultivated, seasoned with browned butter and dusted with seeds and petals. 'Emmenthal' cheese generously seasoned.
Absolutely out of this world. Nearly 50 different baby vegetables, edible flowers, herbs and leaves, gently bathed in emmenthal sauce poured at the table. Every bite was different, provoking groans and grins from my side of the table. Picked from the garden, the preparation demonstrated a superb purity of flavours. I have never before been struck by a dish composed purely of vegetables and this was somewhat of an epiphany. Last of all, a strange looking flower, which looked a little like the green head of a dandelion plant, was left on the rim of the plate. We were instructed to eat this last of all, without any sauce. I will hold back on the descriptions and explanations, so you can try for yourselves, but needless to say, it denonated a crazy reaction in the mouth. Awesome dish.
Course 3: Representing baby mozzarelas: BUTTERY IDIAZABEL CHEESE GNOCCI IN SALTED IBERIAN PORK BOUILLON. Contrasting vegetables.
Melting texture of the 'gnocchi', excellent bouillon. Again, this was clear and full flavoured, reminding me of plates of jabugo ham back in the old town. Each piece was adorned with a different flower or herb, though their subtlety was lost beneath the other components.
Course 4: A Pasta of amaranth, sardine broth and BABY LANGOUSTINE TAILS. Tender garden leaves.
I enjoyed this course. The delicately fishy amaranth was wheaty and full flavoured, and excellently paired with a glass of Hoegaarden. The langoustine flavour was a little muted by its accompaniments though, and I preferred to guzzle them on their own. Still, a very good dish.
Course 5: CRUSHED POTATOES, BROKEN EGGS AND VEGETABLE COAL. Garlic 'Caesin' Dressing.
Superb flavour and texture of the potatoes, enriched by the egg, which had been cooked at 65 degrees for 45 minutes. Why? Who knows. But it tasted good to me. Even after all the reports, I expected the coal to taste burnt. But it didn't, and provided an interesting textural contrast. Zoe LOVED this dish. I really really liked it. A must try.
Course 6: KING CRAB MARINATED IN OLIVE OIL, bathed in gelatinous chicken broth and spiced with toasted buckwheat.
This chunk of leg must have come from one enormous crab. Unctuous melting texture yielded to the fork, bolstered but not overpowered by the chicken broth (clear consomme again).
Course 7: HAKE FILLET WITH BABY GARLIC, hazlenut praline, soured cream and bitter flowers.
Here begins the disappointment - the fish courses were utterly forgettable. The small hunk of hake fillet tasted bland and underseasoned. The streak of garlic cream was a dubious accompaniment, but failed even more so when coupled with an ever so slightly sweet praline sauce underneath.
Course 8: TUNA LOIN ROASTED and bathed in a concentrated consomme of pilchards. Clay roasted onions and sweet spices.
I'm sure this was a decent piece of tuna, but when bathing in an intense fishy consomme, all its flavour was lost and its odour unpleasant. The small pieces of oven baked onion had assumed the strong taste of the aromatics with which it had been roasted, and further undermined the main event. Disappointing.
Course 9: Braised IBERIAN PORK TAILS with pan fried LANGOUSTINES. Reduced braising juices infused with iberian acorn jamon.
Back on form. I swapped this dish in for the pork with curry paste, which Zoe had. Mine was better, I'm happy to say. I'd never had pig tails before, and I'm a convert. Remarkably piggy, melting and tender. The sweetness of the langoustines provided a subtle addition on the palate. Of course, I couldn't resist bathing one of the tails in the juices and popping it into my mouth whole. Mmm.
Course 10: Cheeses, with accompanying relishes.
The little plate of relishes was well thought out and, overall, a great success. The shot glass of pear juice to cleanse the palate between each specimen was also good. However, I'm still not sure I like Spanish cheese that much.
Course 11: Seeking a contrast of temperatures, textures and cultures. VIOLET ICE CREAM, hot almond marzipan, shavings of spiced bread and green tea.
Without a doubt the best dessert I have ever tasted. The ice cream was fragrant and clean. However, when combined with a little of the brittle chocolate, perfumed with green tea, and the spiced gingerbread, something incredible happened. As the wanky description predicts, the contrast is a knockout, Different components hit the tastebuds at different times, before almost evaporating on your tongue, leaving you with a gentle lingering aftertaste of violet. Absolutely awesome, and everyone in the kitchen knew it, too.
Course 12: CARAMELIZED FRENCH TOAST ENRICHED WITH CREAM AND EGG YOLK. With handmade raw milk and fig ice cream.
I swapped this in for the milk and tapioca ice cream, which Zoe duly devoured. I wasn't going to come all this way and not have the french toast, was I? It deserves its reputation. Crisp shell giving way to a moist, eggy interior. Perfect ice cream to boot. Fantastic dessert.
Course 13: FROZEN CHOCOLATE CYLINDER with almond cream, chocolate and lime.
Not hitting the heights of the previous two, this was nevertheless a surprisingly light and fresh end to a wonderful meal. Apparently they separate out the albumen from egg whites, which are apparently 90% water, mix it with chocolate, whip it like mad and freeze it. To create a superfine aero which evaporates on the heat of your tongue.
All in all, I thought this was an excellent meal. The high points were as high as I have experienced anywhere. Even the dishes on the next level down expressed superb clarity of flavour and quite unique combinations at the cutting edge of cuisine. The restaurant has a sense of humour, and will always amaze and dumbfound. I just find it frustrating that experimental places like Mugaritz can serve fish courses with so little going for them, not to mention the bloody chicken wing. Especially given that so much effort and meticulous preparation goes into each dish. But like golf, you forget about the forays in the rough; it is your shot of the day that you remember most vividly, and keeps you coming back for more. The vegetable dish and the violet ice cream will live long in the memory.
Service was excellent, and the wine pairings were good too, and cheap. It's a shame the restaurant was so empty - only 4 tables full. Perhaps they all got lost.